Resilient like no other, the Class of 2020 has seen it all.
Over 1,000 graduates of Matanzas and Flagler Palm Coast High School gathered at the Daytona International Speedway to receive their diplomas today in two ceremonies that broke with precedent even as they rousingly reaffirmed tradition in the face of limitations imposed by the coronavirus emergency: the graduates, capped and gowned in their cars, with their families, started their engines and crossed the storied finish line after tossing their caps high in the air in front of the Grandstand.
“For this one day, the world center of racing is the world center of graduations, and for that, Flagler schools is grateful,” Superintendent Jim Tager told the graduates in his last pair of appearances before students: he is taking a superintendent Job in Vermont in a matter of weeks. But he’d pulled off his last feat: he’d pledged even as the district had shut down and moved to online instruction that graduation would proceed one way or the other, with little to no delays. A committee of staffers and students discussed various ideas, and the Speedway leadership stepped up–the France family, NASCAR, and Daytona International Speedway and track President Chip Wile–offering its grounds to both schools’ ceremonies.
Matanzas’s 450 graduates lined up this morning under radiant skies, and Flagler Palm Coast High School’s 650 graduates did so even as storm clouds still weighed over the Speedway a little after 4 this afternoon. A podium had been set up, looking diminutive in front of the Grandstand, where a few speeches were delivered and school board members and top staff watched from the side. Graduates and their families idled in their cars, listening on an FM frequency or through the Speedway’s PA system.
It wasn’t the Ocean Center, where Flagler schools’ ceremonies have been held year after year (after Matanzas stopped holding its own at the amphitheater in St. Augustine). But the atmosphere was no less oceanic in grandeur and pomp.
Seniors Gianna Lazzano and Abigail Andrade sang America the Beautiful, Matanzas’s Brea Dwyer sang “Look, We Made It,” her own composition, FPC’s Nicholas Aiello performed “This Is the Moment” from the musical Jekyll and Hyde (“This is the moment,/When all I’ve done -/All the dreaming,/Scheming and screaming,/Become one!”). And of course each class had its speaker.
Isabella Scarcella delivered the commencement speech at the FPC ceremony, tracing back through two decades of life-changing events. “Against all odds, we have made it here today,” Scarcella said. “Recently I’ve been reminded that this class is not new to hardship. We entered the world during the tragic events of 9/11. Before we left elementary school, the United States experienced an economic recession, and now we’re living through a global pandemic. We have faced some major challenges, and yet we’ve endured. The Class of 2020 is stronger because of it.” She added: “Even in bleak times we see the future bright as ever because we find the way to bring out the light in each other.” She then noted milestones the class experienced in each of its four years, from solar eclipses to the football team’s undefeated season to watching students “just like us march for their lives” across the nation, in response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida (an event Scarcella did not mention explicitly), and “we asked ourselves, if not you, then who?”
Then came senior year. “The world was taken by storm during one of the most momentous years in our lives,” Scarcella said. “Now, with an election year upon us, we’ll be voting as adults as we envision our lives beyond the walls of FPC. We’ve succeeded, and are here today, ready to face the challenges of tomorrow.”
Scarcella quoted Walt Disney about not looking back and keeping moving forward with curiosity, “and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” For applause each time, the line-up of sheriff’s School Resource Deputies’ cars blared their sirens.
Matanzas’s Mckenzi Flis touched on some of the same themes–how could any commencement speaker anywhere in the world not, in this year of viral uniformity–but in her own way. “The Class of 2020 will always be remembered for graduating in the midst of a global pandemic,” Flis said. “We were originally the class of clear vision, but I would now like to explain us to be the glass of flexible and redefined vision. The past few months have thrown things our way that we could have never imagined coming. We had plans to go to Grad Bash, dance the night away at our senior prom, attend our last high school classes ever, and of course, graduate. But all those things we’ve dreamed of for the last 13 years were of question of if they would even happen at all. What has the pandemic taught you? Have you decided to change your career to working with first responders on the front lines of a crisis? Have you decided to take a step back before continuing your career? Have you realized how easily we take our beautiful daily lives for granted? Life is short, and you only have one of them. Be present in every moment, and trust yourself.”
Each school’s principal also addressed the graduates–Jeff Reaves for Matanzas, James Russell for FPC, before the graduates and their families rolled in front of the Grandstand to accept diplomas.
“How many of you thought that Friday March 13 would be the last normal day in the United States?” Reaves asked the graduates. “I have just recited your accolades. Your actions and behavior at school and in the community have been exemplary. And that has been what is so painful, when thinking about your lost spring. Although our society will be shaped by the pandemic, Class of 2020, you cannot allow it to define you. In your lifetime, you have been through so much. Multiple weather events. Two economic collapses, and a pandemic. Yet through it all you have shown grit, perseverance, because you fully embraced life. For years to come, the class of 2020 at the secondary and the collegiate level will be studied by sociologists and historians who will try to understand your response to this pandemic. And your message? At this graduation, on this day, at this historic race venue, will stand forever in your memory, that the FPC Class of 2020 never, ever gave up.”
School Board member Andy Dance, who along with the four other board members attended both ceremonies, but, sticking to tradition, none of them addressed the graduates, leaving the speaking to students and staff. “This is a graduation ceremony no one will forget, and one that will be talked about for years to come,” Dance said after the ceremonies, by text. “This class has weathered so much to get to this point in their life, I think an atypical graduation suits them perfectly! When life throws you a curveball, make adjustments and make the most of your opportunity. Congratulations to the Class of 2020! And let’s not forget to thank the France family, Chip Wile and Daytona International Speedway for the use of this awesome venue!”
Reaves, the Matanzas principal, had spoken during the morning ceremony.
“This year is certainly different for a lot of reasons,” Reaves said. “As I reflect I can’t help but share a distinctive and atypical list: Your class is the first to have three major hurricanes to impact your instructional years, with Matthew, Irma and Dorian. The pandemic we’re witnessing before our very eyes, where we see our world shut down to the point where the earth is actually moving slower because of the lack of human activity.” Reaves wasn’t suggesting that the plant’s rotation had slowed down, but was likely referring to recent reports that the slowdown in human activity has reduced what Scientific American referred to as “seismic noise,” which generally happens once a year, around Christmas, but only for a brief time. This time it’s been stretching over months.)
“It would be easy, very easy to look out at our circumstances and be discouraged, to be frustrated, to be angry, to be paralyzed,” Reaves continued. “My word for this year was optimism. To say that I have been challenged is an understatement. But I can tell you this: I have been encouraged. Encouraged because of the greater good of humanity that I see displayed each and every day, whether it’s neighbors helping neighbors, nurses and doctors, in some cases laying down their lives for the sick and needy. People giving, people caring, people reaching deep within themselves for the greater good of all.”
He then challenged the Class of 2020 with a few points: That each graduate have a part to play. “Don’t hold back.” He told the graduates they were born for the moment, and that it was up to them to seize the opportunity and “become the leaders you are meant to be” without allowing the days’ events to paralyze them. He told them to “get started” without waiting for everything to be figured out. “You’ll learn as you go,” Reaves told the graduates, relying on the old metaphor about the journey of a thousand miles: it begins with one step. He also reminded them that they serve “a greater purpose, and a connection with all of us. You are a link in the chain of life. And now, ladies and gentlemen, now more than ever, we need you.”
“You’ve got this,” Reaves said. “So metaphorically speaking, start your engines.”
They did, and took their victory laps.